What is religion, anyway?

I’ve been doing a deep dive into the question: What is religion, anyway? It’s pretty clear that “religion,” as we use it today, is a concept that really arises fairly recently in human history, during the European Enlightenment. From what I can see, the concept of “religion” arose from more than one source.

On the one hand, as nation states emerged in the early modern era, there was a general cultural move to make a strong distinction between “religious” and “secular.” “Secular” meant the emerging nation states, which had control over armies, warfare, coining money, imperialism and colonialism, etc. “Religion” was a new category, or perhaps a radical redefinition of medieval Western Christianity. “Religion,” especially in Protestant nation states, was conceived as inhabiting voluntary associations (local congregations and larger groupings of congregations called “churches”), and as being a matter of personal experience. “Secular” meant public spaces; “religious” increasingly meant personal spaces, or spaces inhabited by small bounded communities.

On the other hand, at the same time that Europeans were beginning to distinguish between “religious” and “secular,” they were also sailing all over the world and colonizing other lands and other peoples. As Europeans encountered other peoples, they experienced a bit of culture shock: people in the Americas, in Africa, and in southern and eastern Asia didn’t have anything that looked at all like Christianity — nor like Islam or Judaism, the other two traditions that Christian Europeans knew best. For example, at first Europeans had a hard time knowing what to do with peoples in the Indian subcontinent; then the Europeans decided to subsume a diversity of traditions under the heading of “Hinduism,” arguing that all “Hindus” actually worshiped the same transcendent god, named Brahma, who was sort of like the Christian god; and Hindus all traced there lineages back to sacred texts like the Rig Veda. Before the Europeans colonized the Indian subcontinent, “Hindu” was mostly an ethnic descriptor, people who lived around the Indus River; after colonization, “Hindu” became an adherent of “Hinduism.” So Hinduism is, in a sense, a creation of the colonization process.

The European Enlightenment also challenged traditional European concepts of the Christian God. As the Enlightenment progressed, various people began doubting the truth of the Christian God. By the late nineteenth century, a robust tradition of atheism emerged in Europe and in (European-colonized) North America. From what I can tell, this European tradition of atheism knew little about, e.g., much older traditions of atheism in the Indian subcontinent. That still holds true today, so that what we call “atheism” is really mostly the narrow tradition of Euro-American atheism. I call it narrow, because it was heavily influenced by Protestantism. This is not to say that Euro-American atheism is somehow a kind of super-Protestantism (although it can seem that way at times), but both traditions are clearly the product of the same broader Euro-American culture. As a result, Euro-American atheism can look a lot like Euro-American Christianity, with an emphasis on: personal belief or non-belief; conversion stories; proselytizing or the seemingly similar activity of actively encouraging people to leave religions; etc. Again, it’s not that Christianity and atheism/secularity are two sides of one coin; but rather that they’re both products of the same culture, and seem to take up much the same sort of cultural space.

That’s a brief summary of what an increasing number of scholars agree upon. My deep dive into the topic? I’ve been reading a whole bunch of books.

One book I’ve found helpful on this topic: The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious, by Joseph Blankholm (NYU Press, 2022). The book is a sociological study of people who are not religious, and who are part of organized secular groups. One of the fascinating things Blankholm finds is that organized secular groups in the U.S. seem to be dominated by older white men from vaguely Christian backgrounds. Blankholm interviews Black atheists, Hispanic atheists, formerly Jewish atheists, “Muslimish” atheists, etc. — people who often don’t fit neatly into the organized secular groups. So how come the old white guys get to dominate U.S. atheism? Blankholm has some good things to say about this.

Another book I’ve found super helpful is: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brett Nongbri (Yale Univ. Press, 2015). Nongbri is a scholar who specializes in the Ancient Near East. He also argues that “religion” is a concept that didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment. Thus, when we talk about “ancient Egyptian religion” or “ancient Greek religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Even when we talk about early Christianity or early Islam as “religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Nongbri goes into some textual analysis showing how modern translators use the word “religion” to translate ancient terms that do not carry our contemporary meaning. In other words, to say that Jesus of Nazareth (or Paul of Tarsus, depending on your theology) founded a “religion” is an anachronistic way of framing that history. Jesus may have founded something, but it was not what we mean today when we say “religion.”

If we take Nongbri and Blankholm (and many other scholars of religion) seriously, we find something rather disconcerting. The word “religion” works best to describe Western European Christianity from the early Modern period onward. That implies that “religion” does not work so well to describe the so-called “world religions.” And indeed, if we look closely, we see that the concept “religion” has been imposed on many phenomena that weren’t religions before colonialism, e.g., “Hinduism” wasn’t even a thing until after the British colonized India. Nor does “religion” work so well when applied to anything before the Enlightenment.

Which in turn implies that “religion” is not a universal concept that applies to all human cultures in all times and all places. This is something that scholars have been saying for some years now, e.g., Jonathan Z. Smith in “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998). And if “religion” is not a timeless and universal concept, then neither is “secular.”

The practical effect of all this? Well, for us Unitarian Universalists, we are definitely part of a religion, since both Unitarianism and Universalism started out as Christian heresies. But at an institutional level, we got kicked out of the Christian club a century ago. You can be a Christian Unitarian Universalist, but Unitarian Universalism can’t really be considered Christianity. Which means the term” religion” when it is applied to us is not going to be a perfect fit. In fact, it might be argued that these days we look more like organized secularism than organized religion. And given the apparent complicity of organized religion in colonialism, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Noted, with embarrassment

“I think…that one-sided views are the easiest to express pointedly and with rhetorical effectiveness and that a pervasive human temptation is to content oneself with striking half-truths rather than to seek the balanced whole truth with the persistence and energy needed for success.” — Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (SUNY press, 1983), p. 80.

Hm… I think that describes much of what I read on the web, and almost all of social media. It certainly describes way too many posts on this blog….

UU congregation in Texas firebombed

The Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano, Texas, posted the following statement on its Facebook page on July 23 (a similar statement appears on its website):

“Firebomb Attack on July 23, 2023 at Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano

“On Sunday, July 23, 2023, between 12:00 am and 12:30 am, a firebomb attack took place at Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano. An incendiary device with a chemical accelerant was thrown or placed at the front doors of the main church building. The fire and smoke caused the monitored fire alarm system for the building to go off, which notified church personnel. The City of Plano 911 system received a call from a passerby who saw the fire at the same time. City of Plano Firefighters arrived on the scene and were able to extinguish the fire. Because of the quick action of Plano’s First Responders, the damage to the church property was limited to the front doors, the materials directly outside the front doors, and the entrance foyer. There were no injuries. Plano Police and Fire Department personnel did a thorough collection of evidence of the crime scene. They also interviewed multiple church personnel who arrived on-site to assess the incident. 

“Church officials have been reviewing building security and working with the Plano Police Department since the intrusion of a hate group in the church building during and after Worship Service on Sunday, June 25. That group has posted video of their activities inside the church on various social media sites.

“The church community asks for your support and prayers at this time as we deal with the impact of this incident. Thank you and blessings.”

The “hate group” mentioned in the press release consisted of Bo Alford and Cassady Campbell, both right-wing YouTubers, and and unidentified person. On July 27, NBC News reported that the men were engaged in making a video for Alford’s YouTube channel:

“Alford’s video, titled ‘We acted LGBT at LGBT Church,’ [was] uploaded to YouTube on July 12. In the video, Alford, fellow YouTuber Cassady Campbell and another man film themselves visiting the Plano church. They ask the congregation about their beliefs while in their words, ‘pretending to be LGBTQ’ with the goal of ‘testing’ the church’s theology and exposing ‘false teachers.’ At the end of the video, which has been viewed more than 200,000 times, the men stand by the church sign and ask viewers to ‘pray for these people,’ calling the church ‘pagan and satanic.'”

On July 28, USA Today reported that Alford had removed the video from YouTube. The original NBC story had a statement from Alford saying in part, “First and foremost, my prayers go out to anyone effected [sic] by the fire. As to the accusations, My [sic] channel spreads the message of Jesus and his love for us. If you watch the video you will see the members of the church having nothing but nice things to say about us. She enjoyed our conversation and even ended it with a hug. The fact we are being labeled as a hate group and being tied to this fire in any way is appalling.” Well, actually what’s appalling is that this silly young man somehow justifies his lies about his sexual orientation, and his lies about why he visited the church, just because a kind woman gave him a hug. And now his foolish thoughtlessness will be perceived by many people as being representative of all Christians; his actions are part of the reason why so many people are leaving Christianity these days. (Please do us all a favor and don’t go search for his YouTube account; if he gets lots of views from this little escapade, it’ll make him want to do it again.)

Back to the Community UU Church of Plano. It looks like their building did not experience much in the way of physical damage, fortunately. And according to their Facebook page, they continue to hold worship services. All best wishes to them, and may they thrive and continue to provide an oasis of love in Plano.

Natural dyes: pine cones

Carol and I are still investigating natural dyes. At the moment, we’re looking for dyes that (a) we can use with kids, (b) will work well for tie-dyeing cotton t-shirts, (c) are in season right now and can be easily collected by kids, and finally (d) are plentiful (i.e., we’re not going to collect endangered lichens to use as dyestuffs).

It looks like the most promising dyestuff for our purposes is going to be pine cones. They’re in season and plentiful, readily available, produce a pleasing pinkish-brown color, and I found someone who did tie-dye with them.

Carol and I went and collected some pine cones today (on land where we had permission to collect). The recipe for the dye bath says to soak the pine cones for 48 hours (see the recipe below); I’ve got some pine cones soaking now. But because I’m impatient, I also boiled some for a couple of hours this evening, even though this will probably produce a dye bath that makes a less intense color.

Stay tuned for updates on our natural dyeing experiment.

Update, 12 Sept: Follow up post here.

Update, 8 Aug.: I followed the recipe below fairly closely. The cloth emerged from the dyebath a pleasing light tan-yellow color. But nearly all the color came out in the first washing, so that now we have a very light tan-yellow. N.B.: In her book Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens (Univ. of Toronto, 1980), Karen Leigh Casselman says she got a “warm tan” color from pine cones with “good colorfastness,” but she used alum and chrome mordant; I suspect, too, that she used this dyestuff with wool, not cotton.

We were not encouraged with our experience using pine cones for dyeing cotton. It’s too bad, because where live it’s easy to find plenty of pine cones. We probably would have gotten better results with a chrome mordant, but we don’t want to use chrome with kids because of the toxicity.

A pot containing pine cones in water, simmering on a stoe top.
The simmering dye bath
Continue reading “Natural dyes: pine cones”

Unwanted deification

In Terry Pratchett’s book Monstrous Regiment, there’s a deity known as the Duchess. She was once a real, live Duchess for a tiny country called Borogrovia. But at some point she became deified, in large part because Nuggan, the actual god of Borogrovia, made so many things taboo — or, in the terms of the Nugganites, called them Abominations — that people stopped trusting Nuggan. For example, Nuggan said that rocks were an Abomination, which meant you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with them. It’s really hard to get through life if you have to avoid every rock you see.

As Nuggan began to fail, people in Borogravia began praying to the Duchess. As a result, she became deified. And the Duchess did not like being deified. Finally, she said to one of her disciples:

“Let…me…go! All those prayers, all those entreaties…to me! Too many hands clasped that could more gainfully answer your prayers by effort and resolve! And what was I? Just a rather stupid woman when I was alive. But you believed I watched over you, and listened to you…and so I had to, I had to listen, knowing that there was no help… I wish people would not be so careless about what they believe.” [ellipses in the original]

Well, it’s just a story, just a satire. You don’t have to take this too seriously. But it does seem to me that you want to be careful who or what you pray to. In our culture, we tend to have this notion that our personal prayers, our personal spirituality, is our business and no one else’s. But that simply isn’t true. Everything is connected. There is no such thing as spirituality that is only personal, only restricted to one person. As the Duchess found out (to her dismay), prayers can deify someone or something who really doesn’t want to be deified. Don’t be careless about what you believe; or about what you don’t believe, for that matter.

Job alternatives for ministers

Usually I ignore whatever employment advice LinkedIn sends me in their periodic emails. They usually notify me of religion jobs for which I’m wholly unqualified: pastor at an evangelical Christian church, priest at a Roman Catholic church, etc. I guess their job-matching algorithm can’t figure out what a Unitarian Universalist is. But today, I saw that one of their emails offering me some good job advice….

Screen shot from a LinkeIn email; text of the email given below.
Screenshot: detail of LinkedIn email

“Hiring trends for Minister roles,” the email begins. “Personalized insights powered by industry and recruiting data from LinkedIn. 16% drop in the United States job market in the past week, but new jobs are still available. People with similar roles applied to these jobs: CDL Class A Driver, Scott Hesford Landscaping, Inc….”

Hmm. I know that the job market for ministers is declining. Given the ageism that exists in ministerial search committees, if I lost my current job I’d likely be hard-pressed to find another position. So yeah. Getting a Commercial Drivers License as a back-up plan might be a good idea.

Natural dyes from invasives

I’ve been researching natural dyes for textiles, and got interested in the possibility of using invasive species to make dyes. After all, if you’re going to pull up the plants anyway, why not do something with them? Here’s a list of invasive plants in Massachusetts, and also a list of plants likely to be invasive.

I’m still in the research phase, and haven’t actually tried any of these myself. Many of these appear to be recipes for dyeing wool yarn. Nevertheless, here are some possibilities I found:

Other non-native species that can be used for dyeing:

Unfortunately, much of the material I found online is not entirely useful. Some of the webpages linked to above just say that the plant can be used as a dye, but with no indication of mordants, length of time in dye bath, color-fastness, etc. And many of those dyeing are only interested in dyeing wool yarns, while I’m more interested in tie-dye projects for kids (here’s info on mordants for cellulose, e.g. cotton, fibers). Anyway, I’m planning to do some invasive species dyeing myself, and if I do I’ll give some more details.